NEW YORK - Carmelo Anthony sat with family and friends at the front table for last night's NBA draft at Madison Square Garden, a few feet away from LeBron James and his party.
Given Anthony's prime location next to the stage on which he was introduced as the No. 3 overall selection by the Denver Nuggets - behind James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Darko Milicic of the Detroit Pistons - was the NBA suggesting anything about their futures?
While not putting any special meaning into his seating, Anthony didn't sidestep the issue of his impending competition with James on and off the court.
"I think everyone knows how close me and LeBron are," said Anthony, who has known James since they played against each other two years ago at a high school tournament in Trenton, N.J. "I think there will be a rivalry, a friendly rivalry every time we step on the court."
Given the reaction when their names were called by NBA commissioner David Stern, the fans are in Anthony's corner. The rowdy crowd here roared with approval of Denver's choice, and there were none of the chants of "overrated" that followed James.
Much of that has to do with the image of the 18-year-old Ohio high school legend who is now a $90 million Nike salesman. (Jerseys for James and Milicic were selling for $50 each, but none with Anthony's name could be found.)
Anthony, who signed a much smaller deal with Nike's Jordan Brand (a reported $18 million over six years), said the money and attention given to James doesn't bother him. Nor does the fact that he was taken behind James and Milicic, the 7-foot, 18-year-old forward from Serbia.
"I'm motivated anyway," said Anthony, who turned 19 last month. "Whether LeBron's No. 1 and Darko's No. 2, I'm a motivated person. I'm going to work hard and stay in the gym every day."
But Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik said that being No. 3 might work in Anthony's favor.
"I get the impression that Carmelo is fueled by the fact that he wasn't the No. 1 or No. 2 pick," said Bzdelik, whose Baltimore ties go back to his years coaching UMBC during the mid-1980s. "That's a healthy thing."
Anthony appeared as nonchalant last night as he did during his freshman year at Syracuse, where he lived up to his hype. But his mother, Mary, who attended the draft with her three other children, was overcome with emotion.
"My mother supported me for 19 years, so right now I have a chance to give her everything," said Anthony. "I can't give her everything, but just give a lot of things back to her. I don't want her to ever want anything or ever need anything."
Asked about his mother's reaction, Anthony said he wasn't surprised.
"When she first came, I saw she was kind of tense from the beginning," he said. "I knew it was going to come out like that."
A couple of hours later, Mary Anthony still got choked up talking about her youngest child.
"I'm happy for him to have made it this far as a young guy," she said. "I'm happy for myself to look and see how far we've come. It's overwhelming."
It has been a breathtaking ride for a player who was barely known outside of Baltimore until two years ago.
But after leaving Towson Catholic to spend his senior year of high school at Oak Hill, where he held his own against James (scoring 34 points in a winning effort to 36 for James), Anthony's profile increased.
Now, almost three months after leading Syracuse to the NCAA championship and being named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, Anthony will try to help the Nuggets get back to respectability.
"I think I'll bring a leadership role to Denver," Anthony said.
Asked yesterday how he will use Anthony, who is expected to play mostly small forward and some shooting guard, Bzdelik said: "On the court in as many minutes as I can give him."
By the time Anthony went to Denver to meet Bzdelik and the rest of the team's front office earlier this month, the Nuggets were convinced the 6-8 forward with the old-school game was the kind of player they needed.
"He combines great skills with a competitive spirit that's team-oriented. That's the best way to describe him," said Bzdelik.
Anthony spent less than an hour at the Pepsi Center in Denver working out for Bzdelik and general manager Kiki Vandeweghe.
Saying that Anthony could have been the No. 1 pick in the draft, Vandeweghe said last night, "Character is important to us, and Carmelo has that in abundance."
Anthony had dinner at Vandeweghe's house, where he met Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke. Sitting with his family at the draft last night, Kroenke seemed to feel that Anthony was the perfect fit for the Nuggets.
"He's a wonderful kid," said Kroenke. "He's very poised for a 19-year-old. But you'd expect that. He led his team to a national championship as a freshman. You have to have a lot of character to do that."